During a July 9 briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova voiced Russia’s support for negotiations between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia, and the Kurds in northern and eastern Syria.
On the topic of interethnic and interfaith relations in Syria, Zakharova said:
“For centuries, Syria has been a country where various ethnic and religious groups peacefully coexisted and safely coexisted ... This cannot but cause respect. We are convinced that such historical traditions should be fully preserved and continued.”
That statement is misleading.
While Syria has been home to many ethnic and religious groups which, at times, coexisted peacefully, that does not accurately describe the Assad regime’s record.
From the time Hafez al-Assad seized power in a military coup in 1970, to the present, with his son Bashar ruling the country, the regime has used ethnic conflict and sectarianism to maintain power.
The systematic disenfranchisement of Syria’s Kurds began well before Hafez al-Assad’s coup in 1970. But the new regime continued that policy, seeking to create a so-called “Arab belt” along the Syrian-Turkish border by resettling Syrian Arabs in Kurdish areas and taking property and land from Kurds.
Teaching and using the Kurdish language were restricted, as were public celebrations of Kurdish holidays and festivals. Both Assads upheld a 1962 decision to strip Syrian citizenship from more than 100,000 Kurds.
Such treatment led to a brief uprising among Syria’s Kurds in 2004, to which state security services responded with a lethal crackdown, killing at least 36 people and arresting more than 2,000, according to Human Rights Watch.
As pro-democracy protests broke out across Syria in 2011-2012 and the regime’s response escalated the situation from an uprising to civil war, Syria’s Kurds rose up en masse and declared their autonomy from the Assad regime.
Initially, the regime made concessions to the Kurds, led largely by the Democratic Union Party (PYD in Kurdish) and their militia forces, the YPG/YPJ. However, relations between the autonomous Kurds and the regime have been strained and often hostile, and the former have allied with non-Kurdish, anti-Assad rebel forces.
The PYD gained international support for its fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in 2014 and received U.S. and other Western military support for its counteroffensive against Islamic State’s caliphate around the eastern city of Raqqa.
However, in 2019, the United States drew down forces in Syria. That left the PYD vulnerable not only to pressure from the Assad regime, but also from its historical enemy, Turkey, which launched a military invasion against the Syrian Kurds in October 2019.
The Assad regime has been hostile to Kurdish autonomy, likening it to a partitioning of the country.
Following Turkey’s 2019 offensive, some Kurdish fighters claimed they were compelled to enter into agreements that would allow Syrian regime and Russian forces to enter and control territory the Kurds previously held. Much of the Kurds’ autonomy appears to have eroded as the Assad regime reasserted control over these areas.
The Kurds have by no means been the only targets of the Syrian regime’s systematic discrimination. Religious sectarianism, where certain religious sects are favored above others, has also been a regular feature.
Hafez al-Assad established his new regime in 1970 based on secular, Pan-Arab Baathist ideology. Yet he carefully constructed a military and security apparatus whose leadership was from Assad’s own minority Alawite religious sect.
During the broad-based uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s rule in 2011, the regime presented itself as defending both secularism and religious minorities against Sunni Arab extremists.
In 2011-2012, mass defections of mostly Sunni military personnel left the regime largely dependent on Alawite and foreign, mostly Shia militias – either those of Lebanon’s Hezbollah party or Iranian-organized Shia militias from countries like Iraq and even Afghanistan. Sunnis are the dominant branch of Islam worldwide, and prior to the war Sunnis made up 60% of the Syrian population.
The Syrian regime has not only employed sectarianism in characterizing all Sunni rebels as Salafi-jihadist extremists but has used it to condone looting by loyalist militias after government forces retake an area. The practice of selling looted goods from recaptured territory led to the slang term “Sunni Souk,” or Sunni Market – meaning a market for goods seized from the Sunni population.
The Assad regime’s claim that it is defending Syrian Christians, a sizable minority in the country, is also dubious. A September 2019 report estimated that more than 120 Christian churches had been destroyed or severely damaged in the civil war, with the regime being blamed for 60 percent of the cases.
Christians who opposed or criticized the Assad regime have been repressed. Others report having been coerced to declare support for the regime publicly, to help support the claim that Syria is devoted to secularism and religious diversity.